Losing My Shirt in Chernobyl

As seen in Roads & Kingdoms:

Before we left Kiev, the rules were carefully explained, clearly and in plain English.

During the two days we’d be inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, it was absolutely imperative that everyone follow all safety protocols, and most importantly, we were to strictly comply with all instructions given us by our authorized state guide. We were also given a list of things that were, in no uncertain terms, “totally prohibited” to do within the zone, including consuming drugs or alcohol. In an interesting twist, smoking outdoors was also prohibited. Fully briefed, the ten of us piled into a white Mercedes van and settled in for the 90 minute drive.

It was October, 2013—about three months before the Ukrainian Revolution broke out down the street from our hotel—and I was in town to celebrate the birthday of a friend, who wanted to hold the festivities in the shadow of history’s worst-ever nuclear accident. (Who hasn’t dreamt of just such a thing?) We had barely gotten past the city limits when our guide informed us we would be stopping at a nearby supermarket for liquor and cigarettes. Everyone made sure to do exactly as he said.

The exclusion zone, which is officially known as the “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation,” is divided into three sections: 30 kilometers from the plant, 10 kilometers from the plant, and, at the center of it all, the old workers’ town of Pripyat, home to quite possibly the world’s most-photographed decaying Ferris wheel. Running counter to my expectations, there is in fact a lot of life in the zone. Animals have their run of the place, as a lack of human activity over the past three decades has effectively turned the Chernobyl area into a nature preserve. We saw a band of Przewalski’s horses, a rare, once-extinct Central Asian breed; packs of docile stray dogs roaming freely; schools of massive catfish in the reactor’s old cooling pond; and gigantic wild boar tracks in, around, and through the reddish-brown forest, poisoned beyond repair by nuclear fallout back in 1986.

As it turned out, our hastily assembled supply of liquor (a glass sword filled with Armenian brandy, a bottle of tequila shaped like a worm sitting atop two bright red, testicle-like apples, and assorted varieties of the local vodka) wouldn’t actually have to last all weekend. After a dinner of borscht, sausage, breaded meat, boiled potato, pickles, black bread, and hot tea at the workers’ canteen, we headed across the hall to the bar, where we found a dozen or so Chernobyl workers in camouflage uniforms—about 5,000 cleanup and maintenance workers spend two weeks on, two weeks off, in the zone—doing what guys everywhere in the world do on a Saturday night: getting drunk.

A round of vodka shots sent over to the regulars helped loosen the mood, and it was short money at roughly 200 hryvnia—about 10 bucks—for the entire room. The bar soon felt like any other, anywhere else. We introduced ourselves, and our group started a tab.

That’s when I noticed an extremely serious-looking member of the nuclear crew making very purposeful eye contact. He walked over and sat down next to me, pointing and motioning strenuously at my chest. (Hand signals and body language can mean very different things in different parts of the world, something I learned after once cheerfully saluting a friendly driver in Rome with a set of “Rock on!” heavy metal horns, a gesture he instead took as a grave insult to his masculinity and chased my Italian then-girlfriend’s car through the streets until she could explain what I really meant.) Not wanting to agree to something I would later regret, I pretended not to notice the big, sweeping hand gestures right in front of my face, and ordered another round.

“He says he likes your shirt,” a somewhat more lucid member of the work crew translated for me.

“Oh, thanks, I—”

“He would very much like to have a football shirt from New York,” the intermediary explained.

I explained that the shirt was not in fact from New York, but rather, a soccer jersey my sister brought back for me from a vacation in Sicily. Instead, I reached into my wallet and offered a still-valid MetroCard, an authentic NYC artifact that he could actually use someday. My new buddy—I never did get his name—made it abundantly clear he wasn’t interested, swatting at the air like someone had just farted. He reached out and began rubbing the bottom edge of my shirt between his thumb and forefinger, stroking the pilled polyester fabric like an old-world tailor savoring a particularly fine piece of cloth.

He offered me money. I declined. He offered me his uniform jacket. I declined. He offered me his uniform jacket and a bag of weed. I was still unsure.

“Man, I don’t know…I mean, my sister got this for me,” I mumbled.

“Get another one online, your sister will never know,” my friend Curtis said. (She will now.)

I accepted. The plant employee, no master of subtlety to begin with, made such a show of the drug deal — very obviously miming the smoking of a joint, and so forth — that the guide really had no choice but to stop it from happening. The jacket, no problem. Resplendent in his new shirt, the guy scrawled an email address on the back of a 5 hryvnia note, and took off. He lit a cigarette as he stepped outside, and through the small bar window, I watched its glowing tip disappear in the distance.

The jacket, which actually fit me perfectly, didn’t set off the radiation detectors on our way out of the exclusion zone, and I was relieved to later make it through airport security without tripping any alarms. I wear the jacket on occasion, and people who inquire about it either want to know more, or they immediately move as far away as possible and tell me not to touch them with it. I accidentally spent the bill with the guy’s contact info on it, buying a beer in an attempt to beat back a wave of hangover-related nausea the next day, so we never did keep in touch. But I have to assume he eventually discovered Calcio Catania, the Sicilian team whose jersey he now wears, doesn’t play in the Bronx.